Greg Collins reviews the game that finally rescues us from cliffhanger limbo
June 2, 2014
Big Finish Games
Yes, folks, Tex Murphy is back. The Beatles never reunited (I don't count "Free As a Bird"), but Tex has returned sixteen years later to explain the towering cliffhanger at the end of Tex 5, Overseer. Nothing better demonstrated the precipitous collapse of the Big Commercial Adventure Game than Access Software feeling so confident of a Tex 6 that they rolled the mortal dice at the close of Tex 5. And then -- the void. Two planned next chapters never materialized. But Tex Murphy star and guiding light Chris Jones, along with other Murph stalwarts, wouldn't surrender entirely to market conditions. They put out a series of radio show Tex adventures for fans and vowed one day to return with a new game. Two years ago, they launched "Project Fedora" on, where else, Kickstarter. They got funded. They kept the production pedal to the metal and a month or so ago, voila, a brand spanking new Tex Murphy adventure game.
For those new to the series, Tex Murphy is a down-on-his-luck lovable lug of a PI working the mean streets of a post apocalyptic San Francisco circa 2043. Somehow, this otherwise unassuming fellow regularly manages to find himself as the sole potential savior of the planet Earth. Combining film noir and sci-fi with a keen working-stiff sarcastic humor, Chris Jones and Access created one of the great adventure game franchises. The series has also been known for important technical advances, in particular its 3D game engine. Overseer, I hear tell, was the first DVD game.
In Tesla, it's seven years later, 2050. Tex is of course older but no wiser. It seems he's spent the intervening years becoming a first-class heel, working strictly for amoral mountains of cash. Hey, that's not our Tex. At least he hasn’t lost his knack for getting conked out. He starts this game waking up with a major goose egg and a case of partial amnesia. Well, it's back to work figuring out what happened to him and what new dastardly deeds are afoot in New San Francisco. Since the story is one of the main assets of a Tex Murphy adventure, I don't want to give away much more than that. Except to say that, of course, before it's all over, Tex will once again be teetering on the precipice of world destruction with only his own befuddled wits to help him stave off annihilation by some new-fangled technological menace.
The one thing a sixteen-year hiatus will buy you is advanced technology. The new game engine is Unity combined with Bink videos. The installed game is in the 18-gig range and the 3D game engine and full-motion video are astonishing. I didn't play Overseer, but the technical jump over Pandora Directive is colossal. Tesla Effect starts with a breathtaking Speeder zipping through the dark sky spires of a glittering full-screen New San Francisco. The 3D game world itself is gigantic, detailed and fluid. Hell, it made me wish I was playing the game on a computer that matched the minimum requirements. As it is, I had to knock down the game option video specs and run the game in a window rather than full screen. Aside from some stuttering in the larger cutscenes, the game ran smoothly for me.
Other, that is, than the motion sickness. Most of you will be unfamiliar with this condition, and I have expounded at length in other reviews, but roaming through narrow 3D corridors and twirling quickly about to avoid obstacles makes me sick to my stomach after about an hour or so in first-person-perspective games. Of course, some sections are worse than others. The game options do allow you to change the field of view angle, which helps a bit. Mostly, I could only play the game in short bursts.
You choose at the start whether to play in "Gamer" or "Casual" mode. The hand-holding mode does have a fairly neat feature where Tex's handy flashlight sparkles whenever it shines on any area with a pickupable inventory item. This would definitely have helped my motion sickness, since several of the game's environments are vast and the objects scattered fairly thinly. But I'll be damned if I'm not going to play in Gamer mode. I mean, that's the whole darn point of an adventure game, no? I do understand the modern-day appreciation for "item highlighting" features in adventures. The problem, however, is that one stops playing the game and simply starts scanning the screen for hotspots. Turning the feature off greatly enhances one's game immersion. You feel like you're there, really searching something. And, in my case, getting nauseous.
Tex Murphy adventures have always been a changeable feast of assorted puzzle conventions. The very first game had sidescroller action sequences. Martian Memorandum was a fairly conventional pick-up-everything-you-can-and-use-it-in-the-appropriate-place adventure. Starting with Under a Killing Moon, however, the now classic Tex Murphy game mix began. Dialog trees, inventory items and scavenger hunts, with the occasional maze and other physical obstacle tossed in for good measure. The apex of the Tex oeuvre was the fourth game, Pandora Directive. That game had the best story, the best environments, the best characters (and the best actors), the best puzzles and a number of branching paths.
The branching paths mode skipped Overseer but it's back here. I only played through the most obvious path of the game, but at a few of the "moral decision" junctions I did have to stop and make a tough choice. Tesla also has a fair number of standalone logic puzzles. Perhaps my memory fails me, but I recollect the ones in Pandora being considerably more challenging. A couple of the ones in Tesla are fun, even clever, but they mostly are either simple versions of classic puzzles (there's even a slider!), or variations of fiddleware -- where you don't really need to know what you're doing, just keeping twisting dials and you'll get there. Also, the inventory item "puzzles" are all blatantly obvious. In fact, the only challenging aspect of Tesla's gameplay is the scavenger hunt for small inventory items. It took me 30 to 40 hours to complete Tesla Effect and about a third of that was spent wandering around the game environment looking for that one darn inventory item I needed to advance. I grant you that this is somewhat masochistic behavior. And yet, finally locating those items constituted many of the highpoints of the game for me.
If you're an old Tex hand, you'll be happy to know that most of your favorites are back in the new game. Tex's dingy office is still on Chandler Avenue. Rook is still working the pawn shop. Louie is still slinging hash on the corner. Even Clint is back, although not in his dumpster. The only one missing is Chelsee. But finding her is one of the main objectives of the game. Of course, there are some new faces, as well. My favorite is Holly Graham, the holographic new receptionist of the Golden Gate Hotel.
The music and other sound in the game are all top notch. Because of my underwhelming graphics card, the speech sync was off a tad for most of the game, but I can live with that. Something I have more trouble living with is dying. Chris Jones and the Big Finish folks have moved on with the times in many ways -- mostly in making the gameplay easier. But they remain stubbornly married to that one adventure game element that I hate -- croaking. Tex's headstone is also back bigtime in this new game. You'll be quite familiar with it before all is over and done with. I don't mind dying that much when I know why, but random expiring really burns me up. There is one section of Tesla where some giant insects are flying around. You hear the approaching bzzzz and boom you're being told to remember to save your game next time. Come on. That's neither challenging nor entertaining. At least give me a chance at survival.
The other game feature I didn't much like was Tex's AI personal assistant (and game control interface), a fancy glass square that acts as a futuristic iPad and is called a Smart Alex (okay, the name is clever). Smart Alex offers advice unbidden and sarcasm unwarranted. Fortunately, even the game designers seem to have tired of him and he tends to fade away as the game progresses. But he still makes wisecracks every time you unsuccessfully try to combine objects in your inventory screen. Adventure games should not discourage exploration of any kind. That's what adventures are about. If Smart Alex's criticism is, essentially, why aren't you playing entirely from the walkthrough, then what's the point of making the game?
The great joy of Tesla Effect is being back on Chandler Avenue with Rook and Louie and hearing Tex's wry comments on all and sundry. It's like being back with the old neighborhood gang. The complex and frequently loony plot of a Tex Murphy game is another asset, and Tesla has that in spades. Perhaps all the red herrings and loose narrative strands are accounted for in all of the possible pathways, but at the end of my game there were more than a few dangling participles. What the heck ever does happen to that head in the cryo-chamber? And who are the White Russians? Oh well. Years ago a famous private eye was told to relax, "It's Chinatown, Jake." And in a Tex Murphy game one should go with the zany multilayered flow and not dissect it too minutely. "It's New San Francisco, Tex."
Chris Jones as Tex is his old fabulous self. The years have not dimmed his wit or his double-takes. In fact, he has grown into the part of Tex Murphy. He'd always seemed a little too young for the role in the Nineties. But now he's suitably grizzled like a down-at-the-heels hard-boiled private dick should be. The endgame intimates that more Tex Murphy adventures are in store. So be it. Although we know what happened the last time we heard that.
It's so great having Tex back after so long that one is tempted to just throw critical caution to the wind and give the game top marks all around. But I can't entirely overlook the game's few glaring faults. Too easy, too much random dying and a strange laxity to the game controls. In several puzzles you're required to demonstrate a precision that unfortunately the game controls do not afford you. Result, wild irritation. Don't get me started on the Big (Timed!) Final Puzzle. I'll just mention one other one that bugged me. One corridor in the game is protected by deadly laser beams. Nothing new there. Except the game gives you no good idea of either your own physical dimensions or of the immediate area. So you just guess how far to go forward before stopping in front of one deadly laser and hope your behind isn't still in the path of the previous one. This is not adventure gaming. It's not even action gaming. It's frustration.
One other warning offered from personal experience. The action icons sometimes show up from so far away that at one point late in the game I reached across a fence I hadn't yet opened to solve a puzzle. This left me in a dead end. So, be careful. Oh, and save often.
Welcome back, Tex. Long may you sleuth. In Tesla Effect, however, the detecting takes a noticeable back seat to the nostalgia trip. There’s entirely too much guesswork and not nearly enough detective work. The player feels like he’s being led around by his nose instead of following it. Hopefully, the franchise will indeed continue and, now that the celebratory backslapping is done, the folks at Big Finish can get back to making great games to play. As a gala class reunion, Tesla Effect earns a solid A. As an adventure game, however, I give it a B. Overall, I give Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure an A minus. They got pretty much everything right but forgot about the Tex fans who still like to think their way through a game.